24/06/2016 8:02 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST

This Is Why Treating Yourself To 'Bad' Foods Is Totally Okay

We need to stop beating ourselves up.

Peter Dazeley
Labelling food as 'bad' isn't going to make us want it less.

It's a Friday and you get home after a long work week. You have a hot shower, get into your comfies and hop into bed. Now that you're cosy and relaxed, you feel like your favourite treat: milk chocolate. Do you get some from the kitchen and enjoy it or stay in bed, telling yourself that chocolate is 'bad' and you shouldn't eat it?

Many (if not most) of us feel this way about food. We might think treats = unhealthy and while that may be true, what's healthy about restricting ourselves of foods we enjoy?

Unlike what social media and popular diets portray, treating yourself occasionally is completely okay -- in fact, it can actually help us to have a balanced diet and to form a positive relationship with food.

"It's important to take a step back. One thing everyone forgets is food should be our enjoyment as well as our nutrition," Duane Mellor -- accredited practising dietitian, Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson and Associate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at University of Canberra -- told The Huffington Post Australia.

"There's a lot of focus on foods being either 'good' or 'bad' and there's lots of messages about feeling guilty about food, and I don't think they're helpful."

If we say something is a 'bad' or 'naughty' food, it can drive us to want more of it, whereas if we have small amounts and enjoy it we have control.

Accredited practising dietitian Chloe McLeod agrees, saying that occasionally treating yourself is good for a few reasons.

"Firstly, because it's okay to," McLeod said. "Secondly, yes food is fuel, but food is also enjoyment.

"If you're never eating the foods you really enjoy or which give you pleasure, then that's going to result in feelings of deprivation. If you have these feelings of deprivation, it can increase the chance of bingeing or overeating, and this can end up being quite an unhealthy cycle."

Treats have become 'bad' because of the way we, and people we look up to, label them.

"Try to move away from labelling foods as 'good' or 'bad'," McLeod told HuffPost Australia. "A food is just a food. It might have more or less health properties, and your body might function better or worse on certain foods, but it doesn't give them the moral high ground."

There's nothing bad about wanting cake.

"If we're not careful, we're delineating foods as 'good' or having 'super' qualities, where we should be looking at getting an overall balanced diet," Mellor said.

"It's not good to say 'kale is the best food but cake is the worst thing ever'. It's about getting perspective. Obviously it's better to eat kale than lots of cake, but we shouldn't be demonising food and losing sight."

But when does treating yourself become over the top, or to the point of bingeing? According to McLeod, it depends on the individual.

"It depends on metabolism, individual health goals and overall energy needs," McLeod said. "For someone who is never physically active or is easing into losing weight, you might need to be a bit more careful with the frequency and quantity, but that doesn't mean you can have these extras.

"If you're never consuming this 'extra' or 'sometimes' food this can have a negative impact. But if you're having them very often then this might be a different kind of negative impact on your health and wellbeing, and that's when it's too much," she said.


Instead of looking at your favourite treats as the devil, McLeod and Mellor recommend the following.

Focus on a balanced diet

A healthy diet isn't just about eating as much vegetables as you can. Enjoying occasional treats creates balance, not to mention helping to support bonds with your friends and loved ones.

"It's about basing your diet around those core food groups -- plenty of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, dairy, lean meat, legumes, nuts and seeds -- but it's important that we learn how to enjoy the occasional foods that fall outside of that," Mellor told HuffPost Australia.

"Having a small piece of cake, or even sharing a piece of cake, with someone has a social function. It's important that we try to enjoy food.

If you really feel like having that brownie well have it, but when you are, eat it slowly, really enjoy it and savour every bite.

"Too often we're encouraged by various messages to feel guilty after eating treats and that can drive people to want to eat more, particularly the idea of banning foods or foods you 'must' avoid. It places a dilemma in your mind."

Tara Moore
We shouldn't feel guilty about indulging ourselves. Simply enjoy it and make your next choice a healthier one.

Practise mindful eating

"Eating is a pleasurable experience and retaining control over that is important. That's where mindful eating can come into play," Mellor said. "If you can mindfully eat, you feel full and satisfied when you've had these treat foods instead of feeling guilty."

"That's not to say, 'I must stop eating that because it's bad for me' because that's not really mindful. It's getting the idea that you can enjoy it and when you've had a sensible amount, you feel happy eating it."

To eat mindfully, pay attention to what you're eating without distractions like the TV. Feel the crunch and texture. Focus on how it tastes.

"If you really feel like having that brownie well have it, but when you are, eat it slowly, really enjoy it and savour every bite. By the time you've eaten it you will probably feel really satisfied and have enjoyed it, and then feel like you can go back and make healthier choices again," McLeod said.

Getty Images
Enjoying a treat with a loved one can help create a positive attitude towards food.

Remove labels

Instead of seeing food as 'good', 'bad' or a 'reward', see food as something we can enjoy.

"I think it becomes higher risk when we are being restrictive and also having this mindset that foods are 'bad' or 'banned'," Mellor told HuffPost Australia. "If we say something is a 'bad' or 'naughty' food, it can drive us to want more of it, whereas if we have small amounts and enjoy it we have control."

The same goes for labelling healthy food as it can create less enjoyment and a greater distance between 'bad' and 'good'.

"Too often we're saying 'this is healthy' and detaching it from pleasure," Mellor said. "We need to enjoy food and that's a message that can be lost.

"A healthy diet is balanced and involves eating a wide variety of nutritious foods in the right amounts, and occasionally -- and clearly -- enjoying these discretionary choices because in the long term it's going to be a diet that is sustainable."

Sean Prior
Get the best of both.

McLeod also recommends ditching the word 'cheat' days or meals.

"I hate 'cheat' meals or days. It can create a negative attitude towards food," she told HuffPost Australia. "The terminology I really like using is 'free' meals -- include it once or twice in the week and once it's gone it's gone. That can help with not feeling deprived and at the same time not over consuming."

Just enjoy it

As long as you're having treats occasionally and they aren't replacing healthy meals, just enjoy them.

"It's not necessarily all about weight," McLeod said.

"If we can improve our relationship with food -- and if that means having the brownie sometimes and you're a couple of kilos heavier than what your goal weight was -- in my perspective that's way more positive than having a poor relationship with food and achieving that goal weight."